Richmond public housing authority to resume lease enforcement in January
About 900 families living in properties run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority could face eviction if they don’t pay rent or seek rental assistance by January.
At a meeting this week, RRHA officials announced that a freeze on lease enforcement in Richmond will end Dec. 31. Approximately a fourth of residents living in these public housing properties could be affected.
Esco Bowden is a local public housing activist and former resident of Creighton Court, one of RRHA’s “Big Six” public housing neighborhoods. He’s experienced eviction multiple times and says losing your home is one of the worst and most disruptive experiences a family can have.
“I’ve been through that experience firsthand,” Bowden said. “It’s the second worst feeling next to somebody you know dying. Facing eviction is one of the worst things you can ever experience.
June Dolberry is a resident of Mosby Court, another Big Six RRHA property. She lives with her children and grandchildren and says that if RRHA moves forward with lease enforcements, her entire family will face homelessness.
“If I'm out of housing, my children are out of the housing, my grandchildren are out of housing,” Dolberry said.
RRHA originally paused their enforcement of rental agreements in 2019 following public criticism from fair housing advocates. They objected to RRHA taking one-in-eight families living in Creighton Court to court in efforts to evict them for overdue rent payments.
“Every other person you talked to down the street was getting evicted,” Bowden said.
On their website, RRHA says they paused lease enforcements due to the strain the pandemic took on their residents. Activists say even if that were the only reason for the pause on lease enforcements, the financial hardships public housing residents are facing haven’t gone away.
“They have to realize that they don't have a normal tenant pool,” Bowden said. “The objective of public housing is to provide housing for low income folks, for people who experience homelessness, or for people who can't financially support themselves.
“As a landlord, if you're ready to force evictions on 1/4 of your residents, there's something that you're not doing or you're not providing.”
According to RRHA’s fact sheet on lease enforcements, residents who owe $50 or less will not be evicted. Omari Al-Qadaffi is a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services and advocacy on behalf of low-income Virginians. He says that $50 minimum is a victory. In the past RRHA has brought residents to court for even less money.
“That's a good step that they took in implementing that new policy. And that was something that we advocated for, as a best practice for landlords,” Al-Qadaffi said.
But Bowden argues that figure is still appallingly low.
“I was not surprised by any of this, because this is the type of attendants, this is the type of landlord that they've always been. Well, now, I don't want to say always, that they've been for decades,” Bowden said. “Even the most treacherous landlords, some won’t even evict people for less than fifty dollars.”
If they don’t pay off their owed rent, public housing residents also risk losing their Project Based Housing Choice Voucher. These vouchers, provided by the federal government, are for residents of public housing projects whose neighborhoods are being “redeveloped” into mixed-income housing. This is part of the RRHA’s Five Year Agency Plan for 2020-2024, which has the goal of “transform[ing] its entire public housing portfolio into mixed-income communities.”
This plan has been described by the housing authority as a way to improve public housing in Richmond, but according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “research shows that low-income residents who formerly lived in public housing have realized little or no economic or educational benefit from living in a new mixed-income setting.”
While these neighborhoods are being transformed into mixed-income housing, RRHA has said residents can use these Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers, to access other RRHA neighborhoods or subsidized rental properties. According to RRHA, federal regulations require that a resident’s rent be paid in its entirety to qualify for a voucher.
Bowden says by resuming evictions, RRHA is shrinking the pool of residents who will be entitled to these vouchers and public housing services in the future.
“Their number one tool is obviously evictions, because they don't have any other place to move these folks. There's no other affordable housing in Richmond or in the surrounding areas,” Bowden said. “An housing crisis has been going on for years, especially in the East End of Richmond, especially with the gentrification that is high right now. So they're obviously using evictions as a tool to displace folks.”
The messaging that RRHA is using to encourage their residents to pay their rent has also raised some eyes among public housing residents. In a commercial RRHA posted, a representative of the housing authority said, “we’ve done our part. Now it’s time for families to do theirs.”
In RRHA’s statement on its “Come Current with Your Rent” campaign, it included a section entitled “paying your rent sets the right example,” which told residents to set a good example for their households by honoring their rental agreements. Bowden calls the campaign racist and says it reinforces false stereotypes about public housing residents, who are primarily Black.
“[It’s] malicious and completely inaccurate and extremely anti-Black, because it's just playing into the stigma that public housing is filled with Black folks who are just lazy and don't want to pay the rent and don't want to work,” Bowden said. “They're saying, ‘You just need to pay the rent’ as if folks in the projects are just withholding the rent that they have and spending on other things.”
Dolberry says there are many reasons why she’s been behind on her rent payments, but it was never because she didn’t want to pay.
“We're all trying, but the little bit of money that we do get, we have to [use to] buy food or put gas in the car,” Dolberry said.
For now, RRHA’s interim Chief Operating Officer Kenyatta Green says families actively pursuing rental relief through the state will not face the threat of eviction. As of Dec. 16, according to RRHA spokesperson Angela Fountain, there were 326 residents awaiting decisions regarding their rent relief applications. That still leaves about 574 families in Richmond who next month will be facing lease enforcements unless they apply for relief.
“In January, we will begin with lease enforcement for individuals who have not started the process of rental relief,” Green said.
She says that even though the freeze on lease enforcements ends on Dec. 31, evictions won’t automatically happen on New Years Day. Instead, RRHA will send 30-day notices to families who owe them money. These notices, according Fountain, will offer residents the opportunity to apply for rental relief, sign a repayment agreement or pay their balance.
“We are not intending to send a 30-day eviction notice to all 900 families beginning January 1. That’s absolutely not our goal,” Green said. “The earliest that we’ll be able to file an unlawful detainer is sometime in February.”
Filing unlawful detainers against tenants is the first legal step landlords take to evict someone from their property.
According to Dolberry, she’s already been given the opportunity to sign up for a repayment agreement with RRHA. The problem is, she says, they charge interest she can’t afford on top of her overdue rent payments.
“'I’m unable to accept the payment plan because I'm going to owe more money,” Dolberry said.
RRHA recommends that families pursue rental relief from the Virginia Rent Relief Program. However, that program only provides funding for people whose financial situations have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those residents whose employment or hours haven’t been affected by the pandemic won’t qualify for that aid.
Al-Qadaffi suggests that RRHA apply on behalf of its tenants for relief through the rent relief program.
According to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, that would require the participation and consent of tenants. But, activists argue that getting their permission would be easier than expecting tenants to seek out this assistance on their own.
“The win-win would be to apply for rent relief on behalf of all the residents who are behind. And then that will bring them current to make them eligible for the voucher program,” Al-Qadaffi said.
Residents can also contact their property manager to be connected with someone who can help them navigate free financial resources in Richmond such as budgeting advice and employment assistance.
But there are problems there too. Dolberry says she’s spent months trying to contact her property manager about enrolling in the Rental Relief Program. She’s also tried to fill out the forms herself, but says she doesn’t have all the information she needs to complete the application without speaking to someone in their office.
“They're going to start evicting people or doing the process of evicting people. And I'm like, that's not fair. You guys never even helped me out. You guys sent out the paperwork,” Dolberry said. “I called, and I came up there, and I left you a message. And you're the one who didn't reach out to me.”